John and the Argot-nauts

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

You’re eighteen hands at the shoulder

— Heavy Horses by Jethro Tull


John Bemelmans Marciano (JBM) often laments what might be lost aesthetically if we were to switch to the metric system. In  his ill-titled book Whatever Happened To The Metric System? he discusses his “family business”:

Our family business was horses, Like any insular community, the horse world comes with its own specialized vocabulary, but it is  particular in preserving so many dialectical relics. Riding pants are called “britches,” an old variant of “breeches,” a fashion that began to disappear when it became a symbol of aristocrats during the French Revolution. …


The terminology of horses also includes a couple of otherwise obsolete but once widely used measures, the furlong and the hand. Races under a mile are held in furlongs, of which there are eight to a mile, while the height of horses is measured in four inch hands. The cutoff between a horse and a pony comes at 14.2 hands (which is not fourteen and two tenths but fourteen and a half) as measured to the withers. These terms are the only ones used; to call a six-furlong race three quarters of a mile would sound odd, and to say a pony has to be four feet ten inches tall or shorter absolutely ridiculous.

For me, the hand and furlong were measures that meant something, and I could visualize them in a way I couldn’t a kilometer or anything else metric, save liters of soda. Not that I thought much about the metric system after I finished school. At least not until I had to.

It is interesting that when JBM mentions a metric measure to which he can relate, in this case the liter, it is a metric measure that is ubiquitous in the U.S.. He then divulges that for him, the height of horses only has meaning when presented in hands, and again is a unit with which he is personally familiar, but is arcane to the majority of the U.S. public.

The measurement of horses using hands involves entry into the world of the sport of kings, which most of us plebeians have not experienced. A childhood friend had a considerable number of horses, and we would ride them during the Summer for short periods. He showed me how to saddle a horse, and make sure the girth used was held tight until the horse exhaled, or the saddle could slip. I do not recall him mentioning horse heights in hands. Of course this was a common Midwestern farm, and he was not breeding horses for races run in furlongs. There were horses on my cousin Ralph’s farm, and I don’t recall him once describing their height in hands. It was not as if I had not been around horses through my teenage years, I had. It is possible the height of horses in hands was mentioned, but I did not take notice.

The use of the hand to measure horses is rather esoteric. A “hand” is standardized to four inches. According to Wikipedia, the hand is used in Australia, Canada, the Republic of Ireland, the UK and the United States to measure horses. Apparently, only when the international inch was finally adopted, could the hand become a standard size. In other words it was not until the international inch was defined in terms of the metric system that this unit of kings had a single agreed-upon value. Despite the alleged “naturalness” of hands, elsewhere in the world horses are measured in metric units.

There are a number of websites that explain how to measure your horse in hands. JBM brought up the fact that the height above which a pony becomes a horse is 14.2 hands. The value 14.2 in hands is 14 hands with what appears to be a decimal point. It is NOT a decimal point, but is instead a separator between two types of units. The two units are hands and inches, and this linear quantity is written as hands.inches. But wait! there are only four inches to a hand, so the number after the separator point is never four or above. One hand is four inches or 1.0 and two and one half hands are 2.2, so obviously 14.3 hands is 59 inches. According to one source, one can also add a fraction of an inch at the end. One can have a horse that is 14.2 1/2 HH where the HH stands for Hands High, or just H for hands, or in other cases hh and h lower case. So we have a measurement notation that uses what is generally interpreted as a decimal separator or radix instead as a units separator with the option of fractions tacked on at the end? This is the numerical wonder that JBM insists on preserving?!

Decimal notation never adds any of these complications. It is also standard throughout the world. The left side of the decimal point has each place multiplied by ten. We recognize 123. as 1 x 100 + 2 x 10 + 3 x 1. On the right hand side the downward decrease by ten continues without discontinuity. The number .456 is 4/10 + 5/100 + 6/1000. The total number 123.456 has but one rule of interpretation and attaches to it only one type of unit.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into John Bemelmans Marciano’s embracing of the hand as a meaningful unit. Perhaps it is only a unit created so that he can segregate himself from other tribal groups. The way the hand unit is used appears to be a numerical form of argot. Wikipedia defines argot as:

An argot is a secret language used by various groups—e.g. schoolmates, outlaws, colleagues, among many others—to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations.

The purpose of an argot is not to facilitate communication, but to restrict it to an “in group.” A classic example would be the CB radio argot of the 1970s in which truck driver’s referred to a Volkswagen Beetle as a “pregnant rollerskate.” One reason for the implementation of the metric system was to eliminate argot, and the graft that accompanies it, with a universally understood measurement system.


John Bemelmans Marciano sees the metric system as inhuman and sterile, he celebrates his equine argot as something with a deep rich meaning. JBM believes he should be left alone to pursue his furtive world of aristocratic-hipster measures. His constant eagerness to tie the metric system to the horrors of the French Revolution, and his insistence on patrician equine argot, points toward a desire to simply preserve elitism. In his book, Marciano seems to say: “I’m just like Neal Cassady,  but I see the world like Thurston Howell III.” With JBM, it is the dog that does not bark (measured in hands?) that is most interesting. That metaphorical dog is John Wilkins, the Englishman who first proposed the system part of the metric system. The ad nauseum guilt by association of the metric system with the French Revolution that JBM uses in his book, appears to be but a polemic device. Without it, JBM’s rickety “thesis” of the origins of the metric system during the French Revolution could not support itself for an attosecond. There is the Sport of Kings, and measurements designed for the common person, and they will remain segregated!

For just one moment, let’s look at the hand’s relation to metric quantities. A hand is four international inches or 101.6 millimeters. So one could create a “metric hand” that is exactly 100 millimeters. The value of 14 hands would be 1400 mm, and with another half of a metric hand we obtain 50 mm or 1450 mm. This is the height at which a horse and pony have their demarcation. It’s really simple to use millimeters, take the number of hands multiplied by 100 mm, or just add two zeros. Therefore 10 hands is a meter, 12 hands is 1200 mm. Marciano’s central argument that metric is not “natural” and “For me, the hand and furlong were measures that meant something, and I could visualize them in a way I couldn’t a kilometer or anything else metric” is ridiculous. Marciano shows an epic lack of familiarity with the metric system, despite finding a way to write a book with metric system in its title.  JBM does not notice that the hand can be seen as a “stealth metric measure,” which is almost exactly commensurate with a direct value in millimeters! Apparently millimeters are quite natural.

We see that 14 and one-half metric hands is 1450 mm. If one told JBM that Big Jake, the world’s tallest horse, is 2102 mm, could he not immediately realize that Big Jake is essentially 21 hands tall! Is JBM’s real desire to preserve the hand as elitist equestrian demarcation? Preserving metrological argot promotes separation of the U.S. from a measurement system that has been embraced by 95% of the world’s population. Not one country has expressed interest in returning to pre-metric measures after converting to metric. When the entire world agrees on one measurement system, it reduces the opportunity for fraud. In my view, JBM’s celebration of the hand, is nothing but an elitist “bitch-slap” of ordinary humanity.

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Related essays:

Bonfire of The Vanity Units

Whatever Happened to the Metric System?

Imagining The Metric System

Mr Shortcut measuring a board

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

It has been brought to my attention that the Discovery Channel has a show called Gimme Shelter. It has a person called Mr Short Cut who apparently offers viewers advice on short cut methods for DIY work. In a video: “Mr Short Cut demonstrates the advantages of using the metric system for easy measurements.” Here is what he has to say:

Narrator: Here’s a man who gets eight hours of sleep in five hours. Mr Shortcut.

Mr Shortcut: Hey you remember a few years ago when the big craze the big push was to make everything go metric? Well I gotta tell ya when it comes to carpentry I think they might have been on the right track. Let me show you what I mean. I mean if you have to measure and add some distances with boards for example, just something simple I’ll show ya [Mr Shortcut holds a board and tape measure, he then starts to measure] here’s inches, seven and three-sixteenths and let’s add another distance here. How about eighteen and and an eighth. Ok, so you got your sixteenths you got your eighths you gotta change the denominator leave the numerator add two divide by six carry the one thirty days have September, tipi canoe and Tyler too—and I can’t do it—alright without an abacus and three calculators.

Well, here’s the way to do it, metric—because look here, the tapes you can buy now, come with inches on one side if you gotta do it the old way and centimeters—metric on the other side. So all you have to is put it in like this and you get your nineteen centimeters added to forty six centimeters—that’s easy sixty-five. You can do the math. Metric is cool.

My reaction to this was much like the aftermath I experience following the viewing of an Ed Wood movie—vertigo. Beyond the fact that I don’t recall any big push “a few years ago” for metric, what are the odds that one would always hit integer values when using centimeters for woodworking? I suspect it would be approximately zero. The size of the measured board example appears contrived, and unrealistic. The “metric” example offered by “Mr. Shortcut” has the appearance of how an American, who has never actually used or experienced the metric system, imagines how the metric system might work. Mr. Shortcut (MS), like many U.S. “metric promoters” has not bothered to research the subject.

Mr Shortcut proudly shows that one can purchase a tape measure with both inches and centimeters (aka pseudo-inches). Independent of anything, dual scale instruments are evil. They simply allow the person using them to ignore the metric scale, use the familiar side, and continue to hinder metric adoption. This point is enshrined as Naughtin’s First Law.

When a person actually attempts to use centimeters in construction, they will quickly discover the need to use decimals. This often leads the average US citizen to believe that metric is not necessary and only the introduction of tape measures with decimal inches on them is. The use of decimal centimeters is awkward and leads to unnecessary numerical complication, which in turn leads to errors and scrap. This problem is well-known to the Australian and UK construction industries, and Bangladesh, Cameroon, India, Kenya, Mauritius, Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, but alas, in the US, we, and Mr Shortcut, are ignorant of their practices and our own U.S. metric construction code. The solution is, of course, to use only millimeters so the numbers measured are all whole numbers and eliminate the decimal point entirely. Decimals are great, they are the next best thing to whole numbers, but one should prefer expressions without decimals if possible. This is Naughtin’s Second Law: Prefer Measures Without Decimals.

Am I being a bit too hard on a person who is trying to promote the metric system? Possibly. His heart is in the right place, just not his tape measure. I spoke with my resident woodworking expert, Pierre, to get his view about the importance of measurement. He reminded me that a number of woodworkers completely eschew measurement of any type and build proportionally by eye. In Pierre’s words:

As we’ve discussed, plenty of woodworkers try not to use any measurement at all if they can help it. They know they can’t read a tape measure, that no two tape measures are identical, and they don’t want to do math, ever. But there’s probably a process here. First I convince them that math can be helpful, then you can show them that math can be easy.

I’m probably not qualified to convince any woodworker to use measures, so I’ll let Pierre work on that. But if they should happen to decide that measurement is useful, I can attempt to guide them away from centimeters and toward millimeters, which will make the math easy. That I do know. is a company with a name that describes what it does. They would very much like people to use millimeters and have a page which explains how easy it is. They state:

We know change can be difficult. But, we are confident that if you can count money, then the conversion to the metric system will not only save you time and frustration, it will eliminate costly and time consuming mistakes. Imagine no more fraction math, only dealing with whole numbers and half numbers is much easier than working in fractions.

The assumed unit of measure is the millimeter. They even offer a nice side by side example of how easy using millimeters is compared with inch-fraction descriptions:

— click to enlarge

It appears to me that there are those who have actually used metric to construct physical items, and those, such as Mr. Shortcut, who imagine what it might be like to use the metric system to build something. It is quite possible to build with centimeters, and carry along decimals. The path of least intellectual resistance for Americans is to use centimeters as a decimalized pseudo-inch. Or, one can use millimeters, measure with a ubiquitous centimeter rule, and constantly move a decimal point in one’s head as I did to obtain millimeters. I engaged in this unnecessary arithmetic complication until enlightened Australians guffawed at my ignorance and sent me millimeter only rulers and tape measures. This bad practice is encouraged because of the ubiquity of centimeter marked rulers and tape measures in the US and the minimal availability of metric only millimeter only scales here. The invisible metric embargo makes it very difficult to find a millimeter only tape measure in the U.S..  The only known product available is for carpenters, and called the True 32 tape measure. It has a length of 5 meters, and is marked in millimeters. Obtain one and use it. After you have, I suspect you would no more go back to decimal centimeters than you would contemplate using Roman numerals.

Don’t imagine the metric system—use it!

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Related essay:

Building a Metric Shed